Percy V. Williams

Harford County educator overcame early obstacles of discrimination to play state and local leadership roles

November 17, 2009|By Jacques Kelly

Dr. Percy V. Williams, a retired educator who was a pioneer in Harford County public school desegregation, died of pneumonia Saturday at Harford Memorial Hospital. The Havre de Grace resident was 95.

Born in Perryman, he grew up on a farm his father, Vandellia Williams, bought after land he owned was taken for what is now the Aberdeen Proving Ground. The son of sharecroppers, the elder Williams had few rules and advised his son to "Go to church, do what's right, get an education," according to a 1995 Sun article.

Dr. Williams found that as a black student in Harford County his chances for getting an education were limited. His parents and others from the Harford County Colored PTA had lobbied for years to establish a publicly supported high school in their county.

He graduated from a segregated elementary school at 13. In those days it was the terminal education for black pupils, The Sun's 1995 article said.

He had been taking some high school courses at a black elementary school in Havre de Grace. He later called this a "make-believe situation." He had an interview with the principal of what was then called the Elkton Colored High School in 1930, gained admission and took a train 20 miles daily to win a high school diploma.

He next graduated from Bowie Normal School. Because the state of Maryland did not have graduate schools for African-Americans, it paid for him to get a master's degree from Temple University and a doctorate at New York University.

Dr. Williams taught in Harford County schools in the 1930s and early 1940s. When Dr. Williams returned from service overseas in World War II, Harford Superintendent Charles W. Willis appointed him supervisor of the county's "colored schools."

"He was the best superintendent in the whole state," Dr. Williams said. "He really cared that Harford have a good education system; there's no doubt about it. He once went to a meeting and told a bunch of people, 'You treat your black children worse than cattle. I can go in some of those [black] schools at night and look out and see the stars through the cracks. But I can't do that in your barns.' "

He joined the Maryland State Department of Education in 1962 and rose to become its assistant superintendent overseeing the Division of Compensatory, Urban and Supplemental Programs. He managed the state's schooling of the disadvantaged, early childhood and the gifted and talented.

News stories described him as a "trouble-shooter" for the state. He testified in numerous suits about the state's aid to education.

Dr. Williams retired in 1982 from his state job. In 1984 Gov. Harry R. Hughes appointed him to the Harford County Board of Education. He served two five-year terms. In 1987 he became the board's first African-American president.

He was an advocate of affirmative action and promoting black administrators. He argued that school systems needed to recruit additional teachers from black colleges in the South, particularly North Carolina.

"Students tend to imitate or emulate persons that appear to be prestige types of people," he told an Evening Sun reporter in 1986. "If they never see any blacks in positions of authority [black children] tend to feel less worthy."

Dr. Williams followed high school and professional football. He was also an avid reader.

"Although he had no children of his own, children were his hobby," said his sister, Catherine Burks of Aberdeen.

Plans for a funeral service are incomplete.

In addition to his sister, survivors include a brother, Irving Williams of Rockville; four other sisters, Mildred Batte of Sykesville and Gladys Williams, Mary Williams and Eva Williams, all of Aberdeen; and numerous nieces and nephews. His wife of 49 years, Bernice Johnson, who was also a Harford County teacher, died in 1988.

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